I vaguely recall the debut of Tito Ortiz at UFC 13. The event was notable for its superfight: Vitor Belfort vs. David ‘Tank’ Abbott. Abbott himself was perhaps the original self appointed “bad boy” of the organization. He earned those stripes in his debut when he mocked an unconscious John Matua as his body went into convulsions following a brutal knockout. Perhaps it was fitting that on the same night Abbott lost, Ortiz won: the proverbial ‘passing of the torch’.
Tito’s debut was an interesting one. And all of the characteristics that made him an MMA star were already there. And so too, were the characteristics of the UFC pre-Zuffa. Jeff Blatnick had to sift his way through a monkeys-on-a-typewriter “keys to victory” sheet which listed Ortiz has having “powerful strikes and kicks” and “limited ground work”.
Wes Albritton, who was Tito’s opponent, had an almost comical profile picture that made him look like a man shoved inside his locker too many times during grade school. “This is a grave mistake”, his Droopy-like face seemed to be saying. And he fought like one: within 31 seconds, Wes’ corner threw in the towel after Ortiz mounted him, sending vicious elbows to the back and around the pensive opponent’s skull.
We didn’t get the gravedigger just yet. Instead Joe Rogan interviewed Ortiz backstage. Rogan was unusually subdued, and he hadn’t yet mastered the art of ‘screaming into the microphone’. Tito didn’t shy away from describing his debut though: “way too strong for him…he wasn’t on my level…I knew I’d blow through this”.
If there’s a reason Tito Ortiz became a star in the insular world of MMA (and even beyond), it’s because he was the marriage of performance, and attitude. The former defined him early on as he put on a classic at UFC 22 against Frank Shamrock in defeat. The latter was formed by a compendium of trash talking, but most notably, his feud with the Lion’s Den and the Guy Mezger rematch that saw Ortiz wear a shirt saying “Gay Mezger is my bitch”.
If there was an art Tito mastered, it was “the feud”. Five of his 27 fights are rematches. The MMA world owes some of its success to Tito, which started with his bout with Ken Shamrock. UFC 40 was the most successful event for the organization up to that point. It set the record for gate, and its PPV buyrate was only eclipsed by Ken Shamrock vs. Royce Gracie at UFC 5 (150,000 to 260,000, respectively).
Tito’s reign ended at UFC 44 against Randy Couture in a fairly underrated but one sided scrap. Couture famously spanked Ortiz in the waning moments of the 5th round as Tito unsuccessfully positioned for a leg lock. Chuck Liddell would knock him out at UFC 47 in another scrap that did great business for Zuffa. He experienced sustained success from 2004 to 2006, despite some controversial decisions to Vitor Belfort (in which he appeared to be knocked out for a moment while Belfort rained down elbows), and Forrest Griffin in a fight that is not as controversial as people claim it was (Tito outstruck Griffin in the 3rd).
After that Ortiz became a bit of a punchline. He went without a win from 2006 to 2011. Fans wondered just what the hell he was still doing in the sport. He couldn’t fight (injuries and contract disputes seemed to plague his career as much as Chuck Liddell’s fists). And I’m not sure you could argue he could do commentary either (if his role with Affliction was any indication).
Ortiz may have been one of the first legitimate “bad boys” of the sport, but I don’t think he was ever truly hated. Ortiz could be at times childish (the Guy Mezger incident), and immature. But he was never sinister or extraordinarily malicious. Moments of humanity always punctuated the persona he built for himself (many fans were on his side during the Jenna Jamison ‘situation’). And plus, what doesn’t make the MMA community laugh in unison like an athletic commission ignoring an injury like a ‘cracked skull’?
In addition, Ortiz is part of the old guard which helps to explain why so many fans were behind him when, against all odds and opposite a still hot young prospect who nobody outright disliked, he took out Ryan Bader at UFC 132. Against, Rashad Evans, there was a yet another glimmer of hope when he slapped on an ostensibly tight guillotine.
However, Ortiz looked pretty defeated at UFC 140 against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Rogerio strafed him with lefts and rights, and the fight was all but over in the first minute. And now we’re left with the question: who will be Tito’s last opponent?
He’s asked for one more fight, recognizing his time has run out. Forrest Griffin? It makes sense on paper, but the UFC might be weary of making that fight: if Griffin loses, it’s practically a death sentence. Not that Zuffa would ever cut Forrest, but you have to wonder where Griffin’s head is at these days, and losing to a faded legend wouldn’t help his confidence.
Tito’s last fight will require an opponent that can draw, so Griffin is a good candidate despite the political massaging his career needs. But I think Rich Franklin would be the perfect candidate assuming the timeline works out.
I don’t know how the MMA world will remember Tito Ortiz. As he entered the prime of his career, he was bested by everyone at the top. His time as the best LHW on the planet was limited, but that’s not why Tito is an important figure in MMA history. He’s important because in addition to being a great fighter at one point, he brought theatre to the unrefined spectacle of mixed martial arts. He was the first to seemingly overshadow the novelty of MMA: a larger than life figure that attracted some of the public to a sport that hadn’t yet registered as a professional enterprise.
Tito Ortiz will never be remembered as the best fighter ever, but he’s a certified legend. His presence reveals how a fighter can contribute to the sport beyond simply racking up wins. Hopefully his last fight pays respect to that.
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